“A Red Herring Without Mustard” is a third strong offering in the Flavia De Luce series.
Like it’s predecessors, “The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” and “The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag” it follows eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce as she uses chemistry, her insatiable curiosity and her almost sociopathic determination to solve the crimes associated with the dead bodies that turn up with frightening regularity at her Father’s country house before the police can.
In this case, Flavia is one a hunt that includes a gipsy fortune-teller, an unscrupulous remittance man, the remnants of a local Dissenter sect and some truly eccentric water features.
The plots are twisty enough to be satisfying and honest enough not to be annoying but the true power of the book continues to come from seeing the world through the eyes of the inimitable and irrepressible Flavia De Luce.
Flavia has always been a recklessly brave, brilliantly but disturbingly analytical loner with a grief-stricken father, abusive older sisters, and hole in her life where her mother should be. Her only positive relationships seem to be with Dogger, the war-damaged family retainer, Gladys, her bicycle on whom she projects a personality and the local Police Inspector with whom she enters into a mutually respectful rivalry.
What I like most about this book was that I saw Flavia grow. She and her father reach a deeply-felt but barely expressed mutual respect. She learns more about her mother and starts to feel some of her mother’s spirit in herself. Her relationship with her sisters remains twisted and sometimes hateful but Flavia is aware of the mutual love beneath the sandpaper surface. Flavia also makes a friend, albeit a rather enigmatic, sometimes violent and often absent friend who is socially completely inappropriate but that is perhaps how it should be.
I find myself caring more for Flavia with each book. We see her whole world through her eyes and sometimes what we see touches home. I understand exactly the feeling Flavia refers to when she says:
“ALONE AT LAST!
Whenever I’m with other people, part of me shrinks a little. Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.”
The way she and Dogger deal with each other shows a great deal of compassion and affection. It tells us a lot about Flavia’s character and her experience of intimacy that she likes sitting with Dogger because he supports her without demanding more information from her than she is willing to give. She says,
“The very best people are like that. They don’t entangle you like flypaper.”
Flavia’s new friend, Porcelain gives Flavia someone to talk to and a chance to understand how she is seen by others. I liked Porcelain’s comments on familial love. She says,
“Love’s not some big river that flows on and on forever, and if you believe it is, you’re a bloody fool. It can be dammed up until nothing’s left but a trickle …”
I would read the books just to spend time with Flavia Alan Bradley delivers more than a fan-fest. His plots are strong. All of his characters feel real and form a richly detailed ensemble cast. His sense of period and of Englishness never seems to stumble, which is all the more impressive given that he is a contemporary Canadian writing about 1950s English rural gentry.
I’ve already ordered the next book in the series.